The Chinese rocket is currently set to make an uncontrolled re-entry on 31st July and is being tracked by US non-profit entity The Aerospace Corporation.
Aerospace is providing continuous updated tracking information on the object and associated debris, although it says that it is too early to provide clear information regarding the debris footprint and the likely impact location.
The Long March 5B rocket launched from Hainan Island at about 2p.m. Sunday, 24 July. Its payload consisted of the new Wentian laboratory module for China’s Tiangong space station, which is currently under construction in orbit.
While most space junk and debris re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere burns up during re-entry, the sheer size of the Long March rocket means that it will not entirely burn up as its falls through the atmosphere.
According to a statement from Aerospace, the “general rule of thumb” is that for an object of this mass, about 20-40 per cent of the object will reach the ground.
As a result of the size and potential trajectory of the debris, Aerospace stated there “is a non-zero probability” of the debris from the rocket impacting a populated area.
Over 88 per cent of the world’s population lives under the potential debris footprint, which can’t be narrowed down until closer to the re-entry event.
Australia contains quite a few potential debris landing site possibilities, as can be seen here. Debris is likely to fall somewhere along any of the blue or yellow lines crisscrossing the map of the world.
Chinese officials hand-waved the potential dangers of the rocket’s re-entry, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian addressing concerns.
“China has taken into consideration the debris mitigation and return from orbit into atmosphere of missions involving rocket carriers and satellite sent into orbit,” Zhao said.
“It is understood that this type of rocket adopts a special technical design that most of the components will be burnt up and destroyed during the re-entry process,” Zhao said. “The possibility of causing damage to aviation activities or on the ground is extremely low.”
This is also not the first instance of Chinese rockets dangerously re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, however, with two other concerning re-entries occurring in 2020 and 2021.
In May 2020, debris from an 18-tonne rocket launched by the Chinese struck two villages in the Ivory Coast. They caused significant damage, but no human injuries were reported. Debris from another Chinese rocket landed harmlessly in the Indian Ocean in May 2021, but purely by chance.
The threat of the Chinese rocket comes after the timely release of a report by a team from the University of British Columbia in Canada last week, which determined that there was a 6-10 per cent chance that space debris will kill someone in the next decade.
Liam McAneny is a journalist who has written and edited for his University International Relations journal. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations) and Bachelor of Laws from the University of Wollongong in 2021. He joined Momentum Media in 2022 and currently writes for SpaceConnect and Australian Aviation. Liam has a keen interest in geopolitics and international relations as well as astronomy.
Send Liam an email at: [email protected]
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